The question of danger comes up in the airy sitting room of the Egyptian Embassy where Jihan Sadat, wife of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, sits on a white damask sofa, hands clasped comfortably in lap, back erect.
In a country at odds with many of its Arab neighbors, in a country where Libya has launched terrorist missions -- she nods, smiling -- don't you ever fear for your life or that of your husband?
The thin dark eyebrows raise and the mouth sets into a determined smile. Clearly, she has an answer.
"Never,"she says, without a sigh or a pause of contemplation. "Never. We have faith in God. Not another hour, not another day..." She shakes her head as if to say, what would it matter? "If we have to live, God saves us. If we have to die, then that's the end of our life. If we worry about it, we can't do our work."
But what about the pistol that your husband supposedly sleeps with in his bed?
She rolls her eyes and grins. The assembled group -- staff from the embassy, her entourge, Egyptian Ambassador Ashraf Ghorbal breaks into guffaws.
"As an oficer," she explains of her husband, the man who became an army officer and plotted to overthrow the British government that ruled Egypt until 1952. "Every officer does. They love to sleep with a pistol beside them. But there's nothing in it", she says of her husband's pistol, "especially because our grandchildren love to play in the house."
She married Sadat because of the passion she saw in him, the passion with which he pursued his political beliefs. They married when she was 15 and he was 31 -- stripped of his army rank (that was after he got thrown in prison in the mid -'40s for conspiring to overthrow the British) -- poor, Egyption, dark-skinned. Not a match made to please her well-to-do parents, an Englishwoman and an Egyptian physician.
She is 47 now. "That is something which I can never deny," she laughs.
And she makes herself as much the purveyor of that passion as he is. She travels -- she is here to open a cultural exhibition on Egypt called "Egypt Today." She speaks our on family planning and feminism in Egypt -- a country which, although it has women professionals and politicians now, still accepts polygamy and the right of the man to unilaterally divorce his wife.
And she is a politician, dishing out the political message of optimism for an Egypt that externally is considered a traitor by its Arab neighbors and internally faces the problems of a massive impoverished population of some 40 million.
Through it all, she appears cool, ready and -- presidential. In her own way.
The Camp David peace accords, signed in 1978, will not go down the drain, she insists.
"He will never go back at all", she says of her husband, when asked if he would have to try something else. "He started at Camp David and he believes in it and so do the Americans. The Israelis -- they have fulfilled some of the promises. They have to worry about elections now. (My husband) is prepared to wait. We've been to Israel. The people in Israel want peace."
"It's not only our problem," she says "Americans can do something. They must continue to do it. They must continue with the peace initiative. More talks, more visits. We have confidence in President Reagan to continue the peace initiative."
She says she brings no specific message from her husband. "I came in a mission of friendship," she explains, smiling. "Of course, when I see President Reagan, my husband sends him best wishes and hopes for a fruitful future."
Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. is expected next month in Egypt, she says. "We have confidence in Minister Haig."
Of Egypt's isolation in the Arab world she says, "We are not really isolated, except just maybe --," she fidgets with her words. "The people in Arab countries are with us. They are for the peace initiative. It is the leaders who are isolated."
The true politician. She is a pro at this kind of talk. She knows what to say and what not to say.
Last year in Copenhagen, at the second U.N. conference for women, her words got an abrupt reaction. As she made the opening address for the Egyptian delegation she was leading, a group of Arab women walked out -- noisily.
"They were very, very rude," she says. "Just saying slogans and very trivial things. I expected they might leave, but I didn't expect them to shout slogans -- 'traitor' and things like that. Silly things." She looks mildly perplexed. "I was a little bit depressed about it. I thought woman would be more dignified if they left without shouting. As men do, I've always felt women -- well, not superior to men -- but they've done so many good things."
But that won't stop her from continuing to speak out against policies are the minority, she keeps saying. The women who spoke out at the conference were a minority of Arab women, she says. Egyptians who spoke out against Egypt taking the shah were a minority .
"We've done our duty toward the shah," she says. "He was an ill man. He wanted just to be hosted. It was a duty to anyone who needs you. We are Egyptians, you know -- we are people for principle."
And she is really a child of Egypt. Her British background, she downplays.
"Well, to be honest," she says, "my English background was only to open my eyes [at birth] and see my mother is English. I was 30 years old before I went to England. My father is Muslim. My background is Egyptian. I've never seen my mother's relations."
But she quickly adds, "My mother told me stories about England -- all the time talking about England, England, England."
She is Muslim by religion. She prays five times a day. "Our religion is not as you think abroad of Islam. Islam is for hope, for love," she says, "far from the fanatic regimes. They are giving a bad image of Islam is not something just covering the head. It is an attitude. I am not very religious," she says, "but I am a religious person. I mean, I follow my religion. But I hate to be fanatic." She frowns at the thought.
Of the young women swept up in the tide of conservative Islamic thought, some returning to wearing veils, she says, "They are like the hippies you have here and in Europe. They are at a certain age. They feel they are lost. They have to feel an identity."
And more optimism from Jihan Sadat on that conservatism: "All these things will pass," she says soothingly. "It's something not matching with our times."
Her children -- three daughters and a son -- are grown now and all married. The daughters are married into some of the wealthiest families in Egypt.
Still, Mrs. Sadat, who has been active in work in hospitals, notes that she is putting together what appears to be an Egyptian version of a domestic Peace Corps where youths -- mainly young women -- will work in the country. "We have an army of women in our country who will clean streets, help in the hospitals," she says. "We're going to work hard. This will make [the youths] closer to the problems of the people."
But there is the appearance of good living that the Sadats present. They dress very well. They live in three homes. One they rent in Giza. Another, called the Barrage, is provided by the government. Another is a summer home in Alexandria which sits on spacious land on the sea. "They live very, very well," says one former American correspondent in Egypt.
But Mrs. Sadat demurs. "Well,some other people live much better than us," she says. "I think if you came and saw us, you would see that we live simply."
And then she serves up the finalnote of optimism, one that some would balk at: "We have problems, but not as severe as you think. We are solving so many of them. If you come to Egypt today you will see we are better than last year. Schools are being built, buildings are coming up. We still have a long way to go."